November 29, 2021

Hookup Culture

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos

Going to college is something that many U.S. teenagers strive for. Often advertised as the “best four years of your life” by college-educated family and friends, a college degree can bring a multitude of social and economic benefits to students. In spite of rising costs of tuition and the potential burden of student loans, research consistently shows that completing a college degree leads to higher income, better health, and improved overall wellbeing. Considering such desirable benefits, many still see the financial costs of college as worthwhile.

However, there may also be social, physical, and psychological costs associated with going to college. Recently, the public has begun paying more attention to various social issues plaguing college campuses, such as binge drinking, hazing, racism, and class bias. Drinking in college, which many students see as an integral part of the “college experience,” is estimated to be related to over 1,500 yearly deaths caused by unintentional injury among college students aged 18 to 24.

Drinking is also a key component of hazing by members of Greek life organizations, whereby “pledges” or newly recruited members are forced or encouraged to participate in dangerous, humiliating, or abusive activities. Just this past June, fifteen members of a Washington State University fraternity were charged after a 19-year-old man was found dead in the fraternity basement with a blood alcohol content of nearly five times the legal limit. Furthermore, various reported incidents of racism and an overall climate that privileges students whose parents have college degrees leave students of color and first-generation students vulnerable in the college environment. In particular, students of color and first-generation students are less likely to feel a sense of belonging on campus, which has been shown to lead to negative mental health outcomes.

While all of these negative elements of campus culture have garnered attention from the public and scholars alike, the prevalence of so-called “hookup culture” on college campuses has arguably received the most scrutiny in recent years. “Hookups” are brief and non-committal sexual encounters between individuals who are not dating each other. Typically, developing an emotional attachment to a hook up partner is considered undesirable.

While scholars agree that hookups have been part of our social fabric since the 1920s, these encounters have increased in frequency – particularly on college campuses, where somewhere between 60 and 80% of North American college students report having had some sort of hookup experience.

This culture, of course, comes with both benefits and costs. While having sex is generally associated with many psychological benefits, such as decreased depressive symptoms, scholars have found that the sexual encounters experienced in hookup culture are also related to many negative outcomes – such as emotional or physical injury, STIs, and sexual violence.

The negative outcomes associated with hookup culture disproportionately affect women. Hookups account for the majority of nonconsensual or unwanted sex experienced by college women (as opposed to in the context of a committed relationship), exacerbating the issues of rape and sexual assault faced by college-aged women.

Scholars attribute part of this increase in gender-based risks in hookup culture to the tendency of fraternities to control access to parties and alcohol at colleges and universities, which are central to the hookup scene. As part of the highly gendered scripts of hookup culture, which dictate the norms for how men and women should behave, fraternity men in particular perform their masculinity by aggressively seeking out sexual partners during parties. As a result, several fraternities have been involved in recent scandals where they have been accused of explicitly endorsing or promoting rape, and several studies have found that fraternity men are three times more likely than other college men to rape women.

In the face of all of these risks, and with few other opportunities for socializing, how do women navigate the hookup scene and stay safe? In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, author Nicole Andrejek explores this exact question. Using data from focus groups conducted with undergraduate women at a Canadian university, Andrejek finds that women are well aware of the risks associated with hookup culture and use deliberate strategies to protect each other during nights out.

 By forming close-knit and women-centered friendship groups, these students are able to more safely enjoy the social scene while also contributing to the preservation of hookup culture. Indeed, Andrejek argues that women-centered friendship groups are a key component of hookup culture in that they employ strategies to make the culture enjoyable and safe for women, but don’t actually challenge the culture in and of itself.  These findings shed more light on the complexities of how hookup culture is perpetuated on college campuses – and how it has become a social institution that is likely to be highly resistant to change.

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